I’m sitting at the big window in our current Airbnb in France. It’s been 6 months since we got back from our US trip. 6 months in which a lot has happened, but not much writing. I’m not sure if until now my mind had already arrived at the last part of our US trip that I wanted to write about. Maybe I needed spring for that rush of energy to get back into writing on the weekends. To make the experiences and memories stick. Here we go with one of them.
It seems so long ago since we’ve been on the wilderness hike through Olympic National Park. Three days, we decided, would be good. With only one big backpack, tent, sleeping bags, food, water, water filter, bear canister, and a small stove, three days and two nights sounded right.
I had done backcountry hikes before, managing food and water for 10 days of self-sufficiency, but never in bear and mountain lion country.
The ranger at the station booked us into her recommendation of campgrounds and off we were. „You should be able to make it before sunset,“ she said. She really had confidence in us.
Once we left the main hiking path close to the parking grounds, we slowed down in awe. The strenuous uphill in the humid forest, the narrow paths over roots and rocks next to steep drops, we couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be here. Almost alone. We met two souls walking in the other direction and shared curious but short conversations before heading on. The sun didn’t wait for us but rather kept telling us to move on if we wanted to arrive at our campsite before the darkness.
We barely made it. The tent was up when the last light disappeared. We hunkered down by the lake with nacho chips and humus. Far enough away from the tent to not attract any animal with the leftovers we might have spilled in the darkness during our dinner.
It’s incredibly beautiful how we adjust to the sunrise and sunset when we are out and about. Natural, healthy cycles. A couple of times I woke up during the night, half expecting a sniffing sound or heavy breath next to our tent, but always an unknown calmness would cover me immediately and I would fall asleep again. Something I missed when we lived in the city.
Official park guide fact #8:
‚Try to pee on the path or on rocks. Deer will come out to lick urine for the salt in it. If you pee on grass or plants, they will rip them out.‘
Before the sun had risen over the ridges surrounding our little hideout – the ‚campground‘ – I got out of the tent. There’s nothing worse than having to leave the tent in the middle of the night, especially when it’s cold or rainy outside, so we normally stop drinking water or tea two hours before bedtime. It worked pretty well so far on our trip along the west coast. Today, the morning routine was followed by checking for the bear canister we left in the dark somewhere by the small lake.
Everything was still there.
I brought the canister back, closer to the tent, to start the coffee. When I sat down I heard a rustling behind me. ‚It’s a bear.‘ You just can’t help the thought. Instead of a big black furry creature, a deer walked out of the shrubs, looked at me, and then – not even 10 meters away – started licking the rocks. Exactly where I went first thing this morning. A second stumbled out of the shrub, a bit more careful than his mum, but also straight for the rocks.
„Well, I guess that’s true then.“
We enjoyed our coffee, broke camp, and walked on. Today we wanted to have enough time at our second camp and on our hike. We both don’t eat breakfast, a coffee would get us through the first 3-4 hours before we would dive into our trail mixes, peanut butter, and cheese. For dinner tonight, a hot soup was waiting.
Official park guide fact #4:
‚Campfires are only allowed below 3,000 feet altitude. Only stoves are allowed beyond this point.‘
Along ridges, passed hidden lakes, and back into the valley we followed the dirt path. The Heart Lake halfway tempted us to strip and take a cold plunge. The sun helped to get us dry, warm, and fully clothed again before the next chap would arrive and got us into another short but intense conversation. He was heading for our last night‘s campsite and we were sure he would not be disappointed.
„Have we passed the sign yet for the campfire ban?“ We’ve been walking downhill for a while. We had specifically asked the ranger in the station to give us a campsite below for our second night. There’s nothing like a small campfire to heat your food and keep you company when the darkness covers you like a blanket. But I guess we would go without one again tonight.
The second campsite was as un-campground as the first. A tiny patch of even dirt between brush, trees, and streams. Someone had made a little bench from fallen branches. A bit further down, a roaring stream, falling over a couple of boulders, became our freshwater supply. We did more than one trip there to refill ourselves and get enough water to cook our dinner. And have water ready for the next morning.
How can water be so delicious?
We finished our soup, bread, and the big can of beer I had carried as a surprise, and had just washed our dishes when the second darkness fell. The sun is long gone before it becomes actually dark all around. I haven’t measured the time in between.
We were tucked into our sleeping bags, my head sketching the layout of our campsite, where the two exits from the tent would lead before I felt comfortable enough to doze off. I think we barely made it to 21:00 / 9 pm.
Our bear canister dripped morning dew upon my sweater. I opened the lid. The inside was surprisingly dry although I had wrapped the coffee in an extra bag. Just in case.
Official park guide fact #11:
‚When you encounter a bear, stay together, make yourself big, and be loud and confident to scare the bear away.‘
„Anything new from your book?“ I asked Bridge, handing her the steaming, black liquid after our little loyal fire stove had heated the spring water and I had poured it over the grounded coffee. „Nope.“
In Zion, browsing the bookstore, I had stumbled upon ‚The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild‘ by Craig Childs which Bridge bought and had read since then with excitement. The only problem was that the first chapters had been all about carnivores. And Bridge loved to share her newest insights during our hikes in the woods. Or just before crawling into our tent which is definitely not the best timing to learn some intimidating, unpredictable, or mauling details about bears, mountain lions, and their likes.
That’s when we also came up with some ground rules for us.
„You know, how when one of us finds something interesting close to the ground and the other one immediately joins squatting down? We should definitely never bend down curiously at the same time. One of us always has to stay up.“ – „Alright. What do we do when it’s a bear?“ – „Be loud, confident, deep voice. Scare him away. That works most of the time with the black bears here.“ – „Cool. And if it’s a mountain lion?“ – „Well, if you see the mountain lion before it attacks… don’t make eye contact but don’t turn away, stay together big, be loud or maybe be not loud if that’s too aggressive… well, the book says no tip has worked twice…“
You suddenly start to notice that almost no national park or forest ever talks about mountain lions on their handouts, rules, or wooden boards. Always about bears, coyotes, and maybe wolves. Mountain lions, the big stealthy ninja cats, have a reputation of ‚if you see one, good luck.‘
We take our time to break camp. The time here was precious and absolutely unique. Tomorrow we would be back in a hotel, and clean ourselves up, before heading towards the second half of our US trip which would be all about meeting family and friends. After three weeks of being mostly alone and outside, the thought felt pretty weird. We had no rush to leave this place.
We filled our bottles in the stream one last time, hopped over the log bridge, and went off into the forest again. The path led slowly but steadily downhill, through closed and open trees, an always changing pattern of streaks of shadow and sunshine. It was a very warm October day and we changed looking ahead with looking down for roots and snakes bathing in the sun. Which were basically always roots trying to trap our feet.
We reached the sign ‚no campfires beyond this point‘ after a while but the presence of midges underneath the closed canopy created no regret for the missed fire opportunity.
It was a typical last day of hiking on a trail when you start talking about how close you must be to being back on the main trail but there’s always another up and down, another small path following a ridge line before winding down along a creek. We saw felled trees which gave us an indication that we were getting closer to a more populated area. I heard a crack in the shrubs before us, nothing special, like the many cracks before. I didn’t even raise my head until I heard Bridge saying in a high voice „Oh my gosh, a bear.“
I saw a big black creature running across the path not 20 meters ahead of us. A bear. After his initial surprise, he stopped comfortably on one of the fallen trunks and turned around. Almost like, ‚hey, what am I actually running from?“
I lifted my hands with the hiking poles over my head and started calling out in a deep, calm voice anything that came to my head that moment – which was mostly the not-so-serious stuff we had ‚practiced‘ before with.
„Hey Sie, Sie können hier nicht parken!“ (German [polite formal] for: „Hey you, you can’t park here.“)
I could feel my heart beating but I was mostly filled with a big inner awareness of the beauty of this moment. We had seen two bears before, one in Yosemite, and one on the road in California. Both were from the comfort of the car, both encounters with an artificial separation between us. Not here.
I could see the details on his face, trying to figure out what we were. I could see the movement of his fur, the movement of the muscles below, the big paws now slowly moving back in our direction.
„Hey, go away. We are not your prey. Move on.“
The bear slowly turned around and walked a couple of steps away from us. Yet, he stopped again, moved around, and looked at us. ‚Who are you?‘
Bridget stood close to me. I didn’t feel any fear, only connection. To the place, the moment, and the souls around me.
„Go away. There’s nothing here for you.“
With a last look, the bear turned around and kept heading into the forest, towards the stream. I can’t remember if he ran or walked slowly. At some point, he was gone.
„That was one of the most beautiful, magical moments of my life.“ We looked at each other, breathed deeply, smiled, and walked on.
The next hiker we met was just around the corner. We gave him a heads-up about a potential bear. He carried a bear spray and thanked us. Actually, all the people we now started to meet had their bear spray wrapped in easy reach, at their belts, or on their backpack straps.
It’s interesting how an encounter like this gets you thinking ‚would I have been able to sleep calmly back on the trail if we had this bear at the beginning of our hike and not at the very end?‘
We walked another 2 hours until we reached the parking lot and with it the human-built environment. The magic was gone but we carried some within us.
Next time, I will bring bear spray. Just in case.